There will be a time when you will be discreetly removed from the chain of funny emails. Your invitation for drinks will conveniently get lost in the void that is Google chat, and you will become the person they talk about rather than the person with whom they drown their proverbial sorrows. The shift will be slight, almost imperceptible, but you will wake one day and realize you are a boss. You are no longer one of them, rather, you are accountable for them. There will come a day when you will have to fire someone and have to remain calm in the process. Even as you watch the clock for the moment when you can escape to the bathroom and cry your eyes out. Only then will you allow a release. There will come a day when you realize the person sitting next to you wants to punch you in the face but they can’t, because you are their boss and you have power over their livelihood. Instead they’ll cave, retreat; their sounds will be monosyllabic and their blinking will be violent. You’ll notice these shifts too.
This “power,” if one could call it that, is a tricky thing to navigate and takes some getting used to, as well as several layers of skin. Especially now when we live in an age where someone will leave your desk and tweet a series of sad faces, and you’re left wondering where to even begin in managing the situation.
With the exception of my early 20s, for most of my career I’ve drawn and managed a very definitive line between my work and personal life. Never did I forge personal relationships with my direct reports in fear of being perceived as showing preference. Everyone was treated equally, and I kept my favorites to myself. I was a curtain that could be parted to one side, a window that people could peer in, but never leap, through. I was semi-permeable, amiable, congenial, and sometimes severe. I set a bar and expected everyone to meet it. I kept my tears neatly tucked away, and I knew, to a certain extent, what people thought of me — that I was tough, exacting, particular, not easy to penetrate and befriend — and I had to keep that hidden, too. I’m not here to be your best friend; I’m here to make you the best you can be, was my constant refrain, and I genuinely meant it. I was the boss who was surgical with my edits, but one who spent hours, hours, empowering people to find their way to a solution. While many appreciated and respected the investment, sometimes I’d grow frustrated with those who wanted more, or didn’t see the value in someone delivering constructive feedback of their work, which would have made it, and by extension, them, better. There were those who wanted softer words I wasn’t equipped to give.
I wasn’t cruel, mind you, but I wasn’t going to smooth your hair.
In retrospect, I think I could have been gentler to some, I could have been a little more permeable, but this is the work: defining what kind of leader you are, and this work is a journey in and of itself. I still believe in a line, but I won’t draw it so rigidly. A great leader is one who allows someone to shine publicly, but guides their way, privately. A great leader understands that this is business, but these are people.
This is a long-winded way of responding to this HBR piece, “Why Young People Are Miffed About Being Considered Junior.” The article, and referenced study, talk a lot about the perception of age (how the young feel old and the old climb their way back to the womb), and part of me wants to tell everyone that being an executive isn’t all about a title, salary and an office, it’s about being fiscally accountable, it’s about making tough decisions, it’s about sitting there and knowing that while your staff may not love you, they respect you — and this is hard work. These are the days when you look at a spreadsheet and fight to not reduce people to a line item. These are the tough calls that you have to take (and make) because otherwise you’ll lose the deal, relationship, revenue.
So why rush it? Why not enjoy the process of accumulating accountability? Why not simply enjoy the time you have sending those mass emails and having those happy hours? Looking back, I really enjoyed the time when I lead small teams and had a modest amount of responsibility. I was able to figure out how to manage varying personalities and styles without being in the glare, exposed.
Down the line, the glare becomes blinding. The stakes become higher. You are forced to make painful decisions that are labeled as “business decisions.” Your every movement or errant remark falls under scrutiny, simply for the fact that you are the example. People model off of a leader’s actions, whether they realize it or not, and your actions matter in a way they hadn’t previously.
So why grasp for all that when you’re young? It reminds me of the time when I was in college and I wanted to be 21. And then I turned 21, and then what. And then I wanted to be a published author, and that happened, and then what. When you put all of your weight in achieving something that is a perceived future “marker,” you stop being present. You stop working on the person you are now, only the person you’re trying to map yourself to be. What if those two don’t reconcile?
At some point, I will have to make the decision whether or not to return to something full-time. I’ve turned down a few lucrative opportunities because I’m simply not ready. I’m still in reflection. I’m still working on the “me” of right now. I’m still wondering what that line is, or if one truly needs to exist.
So perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying that being “senior” is not a shiny object. Enjoy your life right now, as it exists, only in this moment. The rest of it, I pray, will sort itself out.